Maggie and Pierre
by Lynda Griffiths With Paul Thompson
Tailor Made First Lady
Who started the cult of the glamorous first lady? Maybe it was Evita and certainly Jackie Onassis is in the running. Rather less of an icon in our times and still a survivor is Margaret Trudeau, former wife of the late Canadian prime minister Pierre and mother of the recently elected head of the Canadian government, Justin.
TLT vaguely remembered her, always assuming she was Franco-Canadian like husband Pierre with her dark good looks. This was completely wrong, we discovered, going to see Maggie and Pierre, a one-woman play, which caused a sensation in Canada in 1980 when it was first produced.
The one-act play is structured around three characters: wild child Maggie, the much older and intellectual Pierre and a fictitious journalist named Henry who acts as a quasi narrator.
Created originally by and for Montreal actress Lynda Griffiths with writer Paul Thompson, it was developed while Pierre Trudeau was still in office in an epoque when such topicality was far rarer than it is now.
While the show is called Maggie and Pierre, this is really Maggie's show. Indeed, we thought one possible interpretation was a rather conventional "woman has mental illness and has two male alter egos".
But we think, if we're not making a gross presumption, we can see why this play struck a nerve 35 or so years ago when the glamorous couple gave the nation of Canada, a former British colony, a unique selling point on the world stage in a media-led age, two years before the formal final divorceprocedures separated it from the British Empire.
The character of reporter Henry in the then stereotype gaberdine raincoat introduces us to Maggie, the 22 year old Margaret Sinclair of Ottawa. Maggie, Pierre and Henry are played by Kelly Burke whose energy manages to keep up the momentum of the play and brings an impish charm to Maggie.
The story itself could have come out of a novel written by a modern George Eliot or some such if it wasn't all true - or at least as true as a play can be. First elected prime minister in 1968, Pierre remained single until marrying Maggie, 30 years his junior, in 1971.
Much in the play is implicit and while we see Maggie, a political science graduate, and Pierre meeting in Tahiti in a monologue cum duologue, it feels as if it may have been an arranged meeting for the bachelor Prime Minister, if not an arranged marriage.
A Canadian audience would have known Margaret was from Scottish-Canadian political ancestry while Pierre was born to a French Canadian father and a mother of mixed Scottish and French descent. The over-explanation of the effects of the media glare and the much lighter touch when it comes to assumed knowledge about their background is one of the problems of the play for audiences outside Canada.
This feels very much like a pre-internet, 20th century play when the contemporary intersection of media, celebrity, politicsm myth making and the bringing down of political leaders to the human level was still a novelty on stage.
In our times when these matters have been explored many times both in the theatre and in real life with the exposure of the political class and royal families commonplace, this is all run of the mill.
Still the portrayal of Maggie is fascinating. We are continually aware with the presence of Henry that the gossip columns and media spotlight on an apparently flower child, hippy-dippy youth cut short by marriage, babies in quick succession, exposure to drugs and the celebrity lifestyle contributed to her very public mental breakdown.
The constant changing of clothes, albeit for the other characters as well as for Maggie herself, seems to have some link to the mention of her Yves St Laurent couture. This made us wonder, in a parallel with Princess Diana, about the practical pressures of her position as a walking slim and svelte advertisement for fashion houses. Also her incursion into the world of pop music celebrity exchanging her Pierre with the Rolling x
The characters of Henry and Pierre seem less vivid, but perhaps deliberately so, seen though the eyes of Maggie. Maggie comes through in full modern colour while Henry and Pierre, both part of male-dominated professions and hierarchies, remain in sepia.
Yet there is something visceral and touching when Henry brings to the fore the amazement and male awkwardness of the otherwise blase press corps when Maggie decides to chat familiarly with them. This seems a turning point, before Princess Diana's own use of the media and if anything a far greater surprise in more buttoned up times. Whether intentially or unintentionally, it pushes the envelope in breaking down the stuffy legacy of Empire and its structures.
The very real tensions, a child of the politically active 60s turned into the stifled wife of a politician expected to buckle down to the role and expectations she would become mother of a dynasty (more in line with the Sinclair past than that of the Trudeau family) are all there, if sometimes implicit.
Meanwhile Henry describes the atmosphere round Pierre himself with women throwing themselves at his feet "more like a coronation". It may be Henry or an exreme Maggie through Henry who remarks, "This is the kind of emotion that fostered fascism".
Equal national tensions between French speaking and Anglophone Canadians and the eruption of terrorism, forcing liberal progressivism into possible repression is simply and effectively conveyed.
But again the play assumes a certain amount of background knowledge which may leave British audiences thinking these events a little too lightly sketched.
The words Reason Over Passion (Trudeau's motto, we learnt after outside research) presides over proceedings on a red and white covered screen. Maggie eventually rips letters down, leaving a phrase which will have subscribers to the (hoax) theories of the DaVinci Code in paroxysms thinking they have discerned some great secret in the French Scottish connection.
Not having the text we don't know if this is in the text or an addition by director Eduard Lewis who otherwise directs a sturdy production of a sometimes dated but still resonant and interesting play.
Nelly Burke grapples well with a role created by the actress who originally developed by improvisation and played the part, a tough ask for anyone. So priding ourselves on our own blend of reason and passion ;), it's an amber light from TLT and her own motorised political aide.